The Best Bars in California

1250 Prospect Street
Given its prime La Jolla location—with a Pacific panorama to match—this stylish, modern bar could get away with serving almost anything. But lucky for spirits enthusiasts, George’s Level2 (one of three venues that make up George’s at the Cove) literally wrote the book on San Diego’s craft cocktail scene: Stephen Kurpinsky, head barman and director of spirits and beer, collaborated with his staff to produce Neighborhoods of San Diego, a beautifully bound compendium of drinks, each representative of—and photographed in—a distinct corner of the city. As you flip through the book, which doubles as the bar’s menu, you’ll get the local lowdown—learning, for example, that around 25,000 pedestrians enter the United States via the San Ysidro border crossing daily. But mostly, you’ll learn that choosing a drink here is nearly impossible. The most popular option is the La Jolla: tequila infused with mango, lime zest, and chili blended with fresh lime juice, agave syrup, and a saline-and-suspended-seaweed ice cube. If you’re looking for something with fizz, the Little Italy—with prosecco and balsamic strawberry shrub, among other treats—is the way to go.
1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido, CA 92029, USA
Famous for bringing the world the likes of Arrogant Bastard Ale, Stone Brewing is nothing if not cheeky. This is, after all, the first American craft brewer bold enough to open an outpost in Germany, a country steeped in beer-making tradition. But Stone’s audacity is hardly unfounded, as you’ll discover when you visit the company’s headquarters in Escondido—ideally, for a private tour and tasting. If you’re not already a fan of San Diego’s particularly hoppy style of IPAs, there will be at least one beer on tap that makes you a convert. But first, you’ll walk through the brew house—past mash kettles and whirlpools and fermenters—to learn all kinds of fun facts, whether it’s the surprise source of the chocolaty notes in Stone’s porters and stouts (mega-roasted malted barley) or what the upcycling options are for spent grains (cow feed and dog bones). Pro tip: After your tour, bypass the lovely indoor restaurant for the even lovelier outdoor gardens—all bamboo and koi ponds and hummingbirds. Sit back in an Adirondack chair with a beer (try one of the extra-innovative brews on offer only here) and warm pretzels with Stone Ripper Pale Ale beer cheese sauce.
440 S Anaheim Blvd, Anaheim, CA 92805, USA
The Blind Rabbit’s name is a wink to the Prohibition era, when some venues operated as theaters, doling out adult beverages alongside a “show” consisting of a real animal or statue. But actually, the hidden-away Anaheim bar is a hideaway that books reservations for Friday and Saturday nights weeks in advance. Walk-ins are welcome Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m., and Monday nights are so mellow the bar feels like an friend’s place—albeit one with a dress code for men and women (no shorts, baseball caps, or rompers). Carefully acquired tchotchkes—including numerous rabbit figurines—put tipplers in a virtual time machine. At the copper bar, cocktails are served with care and plenty of pizzazz. The Drunk Night in Thailand, with a tamarind flavor and spicy finish thanks to Hellfire bitters and Sriracha, arrives in a plastic sandwich bag with straw, rubber-banded together. The fruity Wait For It cocktail is lit on fire. Don’t miss the popular Old Man & the Sea (bourbon, rum, Fernet, and cinnamon), which bartenders put into a custom-made cocktail smoker with applewood chips. And when you get hungry, don’t miss the fine bar bites, such as duck confit mac and cheese.
138 W Commonwealth Ave, Fullerton, CA 92832, USA
Son of a Beach blonde ale. Stout at the Devil Russian imperial stout. Approachable Bastard session IPA. The names may be cheeky, but this Fullerton’s SoCo district spot run by Evans Brewing Co. takes craft beer very seriously. Exposed brick, warm lighting, and a long bar (plus plenty of tables) make the soaring tasting room and restaurant a welcoming place for flights or pints while watching a game, 1980s music videos, or a live band performing crowd-pleasing covers. But beer is just the beginning. The kitchen has a from-scratch M.O., whether it’s hand-stretching pizza dough, grinding rib eye in-house for a special burger blend, or making brats and sausages with—naturally—craft beer. The bar serves inventive beer-based cocktails, as well as spirits-driven ones (try the Rising Sun, a Japanese whiskey take on an Old Fashioned). Happy hour is from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with late-night sessions from 9 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Don’t miss: Thirsty Thursdays, when the brewery debuts its newest experimental beer until the tap runs dry.
5230, 4200 E Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92264, USA
There’s something about a place being “secret” that makes it exponentially more exciting. Counter Reformation, the European-style wine bar hidden from sight inside the Parker hotel, lives up to that notion. Open from Thursday to Monday, 3 to 10 p.m., the pocket-sized shrine to great wine has no tables and takes no reservations (though leaning at the low-lit 14-seat bar is encouraged). But there is food, and fantastic food at that. Instead of trying to be everything to everybody, Counter Reformation’s tapas menu is short and original, including caviar served with crème fraîche and a quail egg, plus a layered summer tomato salad with melon. The wines are carefully curated from California, France, and Italy, with a few wild cards from places like Portugal and Oregon, and are all priced the same. While the spot has the feel of an insider’s club, it’s without pretense, with the experts behind the bar providing enthusiastic guidance. For dessert, order the foie gras macarons with sea salt, with a sip of champagne. If you overdo it, don’t worry: You can ask for forgiveness in the restaurant’s authentic confessional booth, shipped in from Italy.
100 West Tahquitz Canyon Way
Timing is everything at 4 Saints: Arrive well before the sun goes down to snag a table for magic hour. The rooftop restaurant, which sits poolside on the seventh floor of the Kimpton Rowan Hotel, is the desert’s highest, with panoramic views of the San Jacinto Mountains. A convivial bartender behind the four-sided marble-and-wood bar may recommend a boutique aromatized or fortified wine to start, the low alcohol content allowing you to enjoy a string of standout cocktails over the course of a night. (Try the Highway 111, a local take on the Old Fashioned that uses bourbon infused with Coachella Valley dates.) The seasonal selection of globally influenced small plates by chef Stephen Wambach makes it easy to linger in the lantern-lit dining room or under the stars on the patio. Sharing is encouraged, if only so you can try as many dishes as possible, such as foie gras and berries with brioche, and sea urchin served with almond, grapefruit, and parsnip.
416 W 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90014, USA
This rooftop bar has a refreshingly inclusive, come-as-you-are vibe. There’s no list at the door, no doorman sizing you up for anything beyond ensuring you’re of legal drinking age. For the prized sunset hour, arrive early—especially during summer—and grab a vintage table or booth by the pool with colorful mismatching chairs and tablecloths. Later in the evening, a bar stool is the place to be, watching the action and joining in when singalong-ready funk and disco tunes start playing. The overgrown garden that tops the circa 1924 Commercial Exchange building makes for a magical setting, softening the cityscape beyond. Atmosphere aside, the cocktails are what bring people here; masterminds Gabs Orta and Elad Zvi—who first started Broken Shaker as a pop-up in Miami—are known worldwide for their creative approach. It’s tempting to order drinks based on their clever names alone—not the worst idea—but be sure to try the Electro Lit, tequila with curry turmeric cordial, coconut water, fresh lime juice, and angostura bitters.
315 N Montgomery St, Ojai, CA 93023, USA
This playful picnic and wine shop is quintessentially Ojai. Set in an old Spanish house, Tipple & Ramble sells indoor/outdoor decor, vintage and new barware, retro games, coolers, and small-batch specialty food items. Stock up on artisanal s’mores kits for your next campout; cocktail mixers and trays for entertaining; or cheese knives and handmade cutting boards for a stylish picnic. Then step onto the patio, which feels like entering a neighbor’s bohemian backyard, a lush landscape of palms, cacti, and hammocks. On Thursdays through Sundays from noon to 7 p.m., the patio becomes a wine bar. Try a cheese and charcuterie board or hummus and seasonal vegetables, paired with wine, beer, or Mexican Coke from the bar, which is built into a vintage trailer. Pro tip: The patio faces east, the essential direction to enjoy Ojai’s Pink Moment—the famous sunset that turns everything a glowing pink. Plan to arrive early enough to get a glass of rosé and snag the table in the front of the yard for the best end-of-day view.
355 11th St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA
Is Bar Agricole the best bar in the city? It’s certainly in the top five, based on the groundbreaking cocktail program developed by bartender and owner Thad Vogler; the award-winning architecture and interior design by local favorite Aidlin Darling; and a daring menu centered around produce from nearby organic and biodynamic farms. Vogler used to bartend in Tokyo, and his obsession with Japanese precision shows. You’ll see influences of that in the hand-cut ice cubes he uses, and in Agricole’s glassware and aprons (all from Japan). The bar stocks a limited selection of 20 or 30 spirits, almost all small batch, and with a special focus on rum. Come for drinks, come for dinner, or come for brunch: the midday menu highlights include ricotta doughnuts with quince marmalade and a chicory salad with fuyu persimmon and house-made vinegar. Pro tips: In winter, book the private dining room (nicknamed the Grotto) for a seated, though still laid-back, dinner for up to 32 people; for an outdoor event, Bar Agricole’s covered and heated patio is perfect for larger, more casual groups. For lessons in liquor, check out the private spirits tastings that Vogler offers through IfOnly.
753 Alabama Street
If chef David Barzelay’s Michelin-starred restaurant Lazy Bear is the dinner party, True Laurel is the after-party. Barzelay opened this cocktail bar just a few blocks from Lazy Bear, and while it’s touted as a drinking establishment, it’s hard to ignore the stellar food disguised as bar bites. And unlike Lazy Bear, which requires a hard-to-come-by ticket to get in, to score a spot at True Laurel, simply walk through the door. Barzelay teamed up with spirits-whisperer Nicolas Torres to oversee the bar program, and the cocktails go head-to-head with the food. Original, exotic concoctions such as the A-Dilla, which marries aquavit with makrut lime leaf, coconut, passion fruit, pomegranate, and dill, is just as complex and satisfying as the hen-of-the-wood mushrooms with a sour cream–allium dip. And while the entire experience is currently still first come, first served, keep an eye on the bar’s eerily analog website (or better yet, follow it on Barzelay’s preferred medium, Twitter) to find out when the eight-seat cocktail tasting bar, which is sure to be stocked with rare bottles, will start taking reservations.
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